Israel’s Class War Conservatives

The divide over the Netanyahu government’s “judicial overhaul” plan is defined less by ideological differences than a populist politics of resentment.

Joshua Leifer
February 22, 2023

A Rolex sign tops an Israeli flag at a mass demonstration against proposed “judicial reforms” in Jerusalem, February 20, 2023. The sign is a response to a quip by MK David Amsalem that the protesters wear Rolexes.

Eyal Warshavsky/Sipa USA via AP Images

(This article previously appeared in the Jewish Currents email newsletter; subscribe here!)

Last week, Likud member of Knesset David (Dudi) Amsalem took the podium to make an acerbic observation about the demonstrations against the Israeli government’s “judicial overhaul” plan. “When I saw the protests last night, I couldn’t understand what was glittering there,” the veteran Mizrahi politician said. “In the end I understood it was the protesters’ Rolex watches. Look at how many Mercedes there are! How are you not embarrassed?”

Amsalem’s remarks were, of course, an exaggeration (not to mention hypocritical: As he spoke, he wore a Cartier watch of his own, reportedly worth $25,000). But they also contained a kernel of truth. The demonstrations against the Netanyahu government’s plan to gut the judiciary have in many ways been a revolt of elites—of the secular, highly educated (and largely Ashkenazi) liberals whose economic and social power has survived the gradual diminishment of their electoral strength. “When [the protesters] say, ‘they’re taking the state away from us,’” explained New York University professor and left-wing Mizrahi intellectual Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, referring to a common refrain of the demonstrations, “they mean—‘we are the state.’”

The current administration—and the protests it has provoked—marks a significant realignment in Israeli parliamentary politics that has been years in the making. After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was indicted on multiple corruption charges in 2019, he moved to consolidate his Likud party into a bastion of right-wing populism that could wage war against the country’s institutions, so as to better combat his charges. The Haredi parties had once been willing to join both Labor- and Likud-led coalitions, but as Israeli Haredi communities moved rightward, they fell in lockstep behind Netanyahu. At the same time, the old standard bearers of Zionist socialism—Labor and Meretz—have shriveled into near oblivion. In their place, an amorphous bourgeois center exemplified by Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid has assumed the mantle of primary challenger to Netanyahu and the right. The result was the bifurcation of Israeli politics into pro- and anti-Netanyahu blocs, a division that persists today.

The polarization is deeply felt; the intensity of the protests against the current Netanyahu government’s proposed changes reflects this fact. Yet the divisions underlying the pro- and anti-Netanyahu split are not simply ideological. For instance, supporters of West Bank annexation can be found on both sides of the divide. Indeed, the former settler leader Naftali Bennett, who helped to depose Netanyahu briefly in 2021, long positioned himself to Netanyahu’s right before ending up in the opposition. Members of the current opposition have also supported various policies that closely resemble the “judicial revolution” proposed by Netanyahu’s Justice Minister Yariv Levin. Take erstwhile Likudnik Ze’ev Elkin, now a member of the opposition National Unity party: In 2018, he endorsed the idea of a court override bill with a simple majority of 61, one of the core components of Levin’s plan. Even now, despite the acrimony in the Knesset, bills continue to pass with support from both the coalition and opposition parties.

Rather than ideological differences, it is a politics of resentment that has, in large part, defined the discourse within and about the protests. Since 2018, the right-wing Israeli journalist Avishay Ben Haim has popularized the argument that the criminal cases against Netanyahu constitute an attempt by “The First Israel”—Israel’s old Ashkenazi and Labor Zionist establishment, the country’s judicial system and cultural elite—to depose Netanyahu in order to keep power out of the hands of “The Second Israel”—the largely Mizrahi working- and lower-middle classes who vote overwhelming for Likud, Shas, and other parties of the right. In Ben Haim’s telling, the case prosecuted by the “Ashkenazi hegemony” against Netanyahu takes on a conspiratorial quality. It is an attempt by the country’s liberal and predominantly Ashkenazi elite, who comprise only a small segment of the population, to maintain their undemocratic hold on power—in opposition to the will of the country’s right-wing (and non-Ashkenazi) majority.

Ben Haim’s analysis ignores the crucial fact that for more than 40 years, Likud and the right have dominated Israeli politics. Netanyahu himself has ruled the country for a total of more than 15 years. He and his party bear much of the responsibility for maintaining the persistent social inequality and gaps in cultural and political power between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim. His policies created the conditions, in other words, that produced the right-wing populism that in turn bolsters his power. “Since 1981 [the Likud] has positioned itself as the defender of the Mizrahim,” Ben-Dor Benite said. “But it’s never been true.” Even at the level of party leadership, Likud remains dominated by “a right-wing Ashkenazi aristocracy,” Ben-Dor Benite observed. Netanyahu, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, and Infrastructure Minister Yisrael Katz (who aspires to one day succeed Netanyahu), all hail from a milieu of elite right-wing families who opposed the Labor Zionists’ rule and, as a result, bear a deep generational grudge toward the formerly socialist left.

Still, Ben Haim’s analysis does point to an uncomfortable truth: The pro- and anti-Netanyahu blocs do, in fact, represent vastly different socioeconomic constituencies. According to a November 2022 post-election breakdown published by the left-wing website Davar, the parties of the current coalition—Likud, Religious Zionism, Shas, and United Torah Judaism (UTJ)—performed best among voters in the lower half of Israel’s socioeconomic bracket. The Haredi parties Shas and UTJ represent Israel’s poorest Jews, while Likud and Religious Zionism polled highest among Israel’s lower-middle and middle class. By contrast, the parties of the opposition—Yesh Atid, Labor, and the National Unity party—are largely the parties of the richest Israelis. Yesh Atid alone won a plurality of voters in Israel’s highest socioeconomic bracket—a full 40%. Likewise, Labor and Meretz, though both nominally social-democratic parties, performed best in the top socioeconomic segments. And while class is not a perfect proxy for ethnic origin, the Ashkenazi–Mizrahi divide is, to paraphrase the British Marxist Stuart Hall’s famous quip, “the modality through which class is lived” within Israeli Jewish society; Ashkenazi salaried workers continue to out-earn their Mizrahi counterparts by a substantial margin, and Mizrahi men and women are roughly 15% less likely to earn bachelor’s degrees than Ashkenazim. “The tragedy of the present is that Netanyahu was successfully able to upgrade an old lie about the alliance between the Zionist right and the Mizrahi population,” Ben-Dor Benite said. “The politics of resentment is much better at reinventing itself, much more agile and resistant” than left alternatives have been so far.

It is against this backdrop that class war rhetoric like Amsalem’s resonates. For Israel’s populist right, dismantling the power of the judicial branch is not merely a technical or constitutional matter: It is part of a greater material and symbolic struggle to depose the liberal, Ashkenazi ruling elite once and for all. “I invite everyone to check the judges of the High Court from 1948 up to today—10% Mizrahim,” said Likud MK and Information Minister Galit Distel Atbaryan, after the court invalidated the ministerial appointment of Aryeh Deri, leader of the Sephardic Haredi party Shas, due to his prior conviction for tax fraud. The judiciary is, in the eyes of the right, the last obstacle standing in the way of overthrowing the old order—of completing the revolution that Menachem Begin started in 1977, when Likud defeated the Labor Zionists in what was Israel’s first political transfer of power. “The judicial system is controlled by a radical leftist, post-Zionist minority that elects itself behind closed doors, dictating to us its own values,” Levin once said at a pro-annexation conference. In this view, once the court is stripped of its power to strike down laws, it will no longer be able to impede the real will of the people—and particularly that of “the Second Israel.” On Monday, as the Knesset prepared to vote on the first part of Levin’s judicial overhaul package, Amsalem took the podium and launched another broadside at Israel’s ruling elite. “You can’t accept that Amsalem David makes the laws here,” he said, referring to himself in the third person. “It kills you!”

The protesters amassing in the streets outside the Knesset, and those who have been gathering week after week in Tel Aviv rallies, have done little to prove him wrong. At the weekly rallies, speaker after speaker with sterling elite credentials has extolled Israel’s glory days of yore and bemoaned the threat to “democracy”—a rosy nostalgia that Israel’s disenfranchised citizens are unlikely to share. “It’s our role,” declared Israeli comedian Lior Schlein at a Tel Aviv protest last week, “to bring back the Israel that our grandparents and parents dreamed of—and not just dreamed of, but established.” Indeed, their rhetoric often confirms accusations like Amsalem’s, that the protesters do not believe Israel’s working classes and its representatives have an equal right to determine the fate of the country. “When we spoke about social welfare and Mizrahiness, they called us dumb right-wingers, and when we spoke about the occupation, leftist traitors,” the Mizrahi feminist activist Sapir Sluzker Amran wrote on Facebook of the “pro-democracy” protests in Jerusalem last week. “And now they’re asking me, this crowd full of pathos, rich and well-funded, wrapped in Israeli flags, to protest with them?” Sluzker Amran wrote that while she did ultimately join the protests, she did so “without a full heart.”

To be sure, the protest movement is not monolithic, and just recently a new initiative called the Mizrahi Civic Collective has emerged rejecting both Netanyahu’s agenda and a return to the status quo. “We believe that a deep and fundamental change in the judicial system and public policy is indeed necessary, but not in the racist, anti-egalitarian spirit” of the right-wing libertarians and ethnonationalist settlers currently pushing to quash the judiciary, the platform declares.

Iranian Israeli journalist Orly Noy, who is among the initiative’s signatories, wrote in Local Call that the activists behind the Mizrahi Civic Collective “share the deep and widespread fear among the public about the far-reaching institutional changes that this government is advancing.” But she drew a distinction between their position and the overarching orientation of the protests: “We do not believe that the solution is to be satisfied with stopping the judicial reforms or to turn the clock back to the days before Netanyahu-Rothman-Ben-Gvir.” Instead, the Mizrahi Civic Collective argues, “We do not say ‘democracy is lost’ . . . because full democracy for Mizrahim, Palestinians, Ethiopians and those who fled the Soviet Union has never existed here.”

Joshua Leifer is a Jewish Currents contributing editor and a member of the Dissent editorial board. His essays and reporting have also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Jacobin, +972 Magazine, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book about American Jewish identity. He lives in New Haven, CT, where he is a history PhD student.